By Matt Young
Just when you thought you had the good guys and the bad guys figured out, it seems Russian president Vladimir Putin has turned the tables.
The leader of Russia is working to piece back the fractured ties between China and the United States, after US President Donald Trump and his administration's shaky relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Jinping held talks with President Putin at the Kremlin.
In recent days, as North Korea has continued to test missiles in defiance of global pressure, President Trump has started voicing doubt about whether Beijing is up to the task of mediating.
His administration has taken a number of steps against China's interests that have suggested its patience has run short. An editorial in the Guardian described his diplomatic measures as "crude threats and pressure tactics".
Trump, in his initial response to the launch, urged China on Twitter to "put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!"
Meanwhile, Putin and Jinping have formed an alliance to work together in the hope they can peacefully defuse the continuing crisis over North Korea's nuclear armorment.
They described North Korea's test as "unacceptable".
"We've agreed to promote our joint initiative, based on Russian step-by-step Korean settlement plan and Chinese ideas to simultaneously freeze North Korean nuclear and missile activities, and US and South Korean joint military drills," Putin said at a press conference.
He called for North Korea to take a "voluntary political decision" and begin a "moratorium on testing nuclear devices and test launches of ballistic missiles".
The North's first test launch of a missile capable of reaching the US has been described by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a "new escalation of the threat" to the US and the world.
The United States asserted Tuesday that North Korea's latest missile launch was indeed an intercontinental ballistic missile, as the North had boasted and the US and South Korea had feared.
Since he entered the White House, Trump has talked about confronting Pyongyang and pushing China to increase pressure on the North, but neither strategy has produced fast results.
The White House has been threatening to move forward on its own, though administration officials have not settled on next steps.
Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert with the Center for a New American Security, said Trump was probably "coming to the point of no return" with North Korea, adding that the upshot could be diplomatic overtures or military action.
"We either go to the diplomatic table with Kim Jong Un or we do take some course of action," Cronin said.
"In all probability we do both."
Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday, discussing North Korea and its nuclear program with both leaders.
He will meet them both this week at the Group of 20 meeting in Germany, as well as have his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump and Xi emerged from their first meeting - in April at the U.S. president's Florida estate - seemingly as fast friends.
Trump said he has developed an "outstanding" relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping after meeting with the leader.
Trump said in a brief appearance before reporters that he and Xi made "tremendous progress" in their first face-to-face talks and that he believe "lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away."
But China has long resisted intensifying economic pressure on neighbouring North Korea, in part out of fear of the instability that could mount on its doorstep, and Trump has not found a way to break through Beijing's old habits.
Putin could be the key to Trump's troubles.
"The China-Russia juggernaut is beginning to roll. And like a comic-strip fall-guy with his legs tied to the rails, Trump lies directly in its path," The Guardian's Simon Tisdall writes.
Both Russia and China have agreed North Korea must halt its missile tests, and in return for North Korea's agreement, they want the United States and South Korea to halt large-scale military exercises in the region and to stop their deployment of a missile shield.
The Pentagon has spent tens of billions of dollars developing a missile defence system tailored to the North Korean ambition of attaining the eventual capability to attack the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile.
On May 30 the Pentagon successfully shot down a mock warhead designed to replicate the North Korean threat.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said the U.S.-South Korea missile exercise Tuesday was meant to show "our precision fire capability.
"We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea," she said in a statement.
Yet the United States seems to be resisting the new China Russia deal; Senator Deb Fischer, chairwoman of an Armed Services nuclear forces subcommittee, told The Washington Examiner the US has "no illusions" the problem will be solved so easily.
"The latest test-launch demonstrates a sobering reality: The threat of North Korea is quickly advancing," Fischer said.
"As the threat increases, we must bring greater pressure to bear on North Korea, and its international patrons, China and Russia, but we should have no illusions that they will solve this problem for us."
The prime danger from the U.S. viewpoint is the prospect of North Korea pairing a nuclear warhead with an ICBM.
The latest US intelligence assessment is that the North probably does not yet have that capability - putting a small-enough nuclear warhead atop an ICBM.
Previously, North Korea had demonstrated missiles of short and medium range, but never one able to get to the US The launch was not wholly unexpected.
Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence, testified to Congress in May that the US anticipated an ICBM test before the end of this year.
"The United States seeks only the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Our commitment to the defence of our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, remains iron-clad."
- AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.